Tag Archives: 2015 Patriots Training Camp

Patriots Training Camp Primer – Offensive Line

Steve Balestrieri
July 18, 2016 at 6:00 am ET

Return of Scarnecchia and Health Two Biggest Issues

The Patriots head into training camp in just a few weeks and there should be no shortage of competition at a number of spots. As a lead-in to the beginning of camp, we’ll break down the positions and give our take on who is a lock, a near lock for the 53-man roster and who is on the bubble. Next up is the Offensive Line.

Bill Belichick likes to say that the spring’s OTAs and Minicamp is a learning exercise and that the real competition begins in training camp. While that is true to an extent, with 89 players on the current roster, a minimum of 36 of these will be cut. That doesn’t take into consideration the tweaking that goes on during the season after the initial 53-man roster is completed.

So next on deck are the big bodies on the Offensive Line. The team is banking heavily on the return of positional coach Dante Scarnecchia who was retired for two years. He’s a tough taskmaster who demands the most from his charges. The health of this group is a big question mark; injuries ravaged them and the protection of QB Tom Brady steadily got worse as the season progressed.

So who’s locked in and who’s on the bubble?


Dante Scarnecchia returns to be the Pats OL coach after he retired two years ago. (USA TODAY Images)

Roster Locks: Nate Solder, Sebastian Vollmer, Joe Thuney, Shaq Mason, David Andrews, Jonathan Cooper
Health is the key here, Solder was lost in Dallas Week 5 for the season with a torn bicep. Vollmer battled injuries throughout the campaign and has knee and back issues. But if both are healthy they’ll be your starting tackles. One would have thought that the tackle position would have been addressed in either free agency and the draft but it was not. We’ll see how that turns out later this year.

The Pats didn’t draft Thuney to sit on the pine, and with Mason, Jackson and Kline MIA this spring, he took the starting reps at left guard whenever Brady or Garoppolo was on the field. He even took a few at center. Mason finally appeared in the last spring workout and had 10 starts as a rookie. Coming from the running game of Georgia Tech, he’s an excellent drive blocker but as one would expect, had issues with his pass blocking.  Andrews, who started all the games early last season and played fairly well is undersized but tough. In a surprise move, he was getting the starting reps over Bryan Stork this spring…something to keep an eye on.

Cooper was a top draft pick for the Cardinals before injuries derailed his career there. With the aforementioned players out this spring, he got the starter’s reps at right guard. The Pats are hoping that Scarnecchia can rekindle his professional career.


Nate Solder returns after going on IR after Week 5 in 2015. (USA TODAY Images)

Near Roster Locks: Bryan Stork, Marcus Cannon, LaAdrian Waddle
Stork, who played so well as a rookie at center, missed the first six weeks of the season on IR-Designated to Return and struggled as he had health issues of his own last year. Stork even played at right tackle against the Giants as Cameron Fleming and Marcus Cannon struggled. It will be interesting to watch the competition between Stork and Andrews this summer. With Thuney providing added insurance, the pivot position should be in good shape.

Cannon, is the ultimate head scratcher for this team, but Bill Belichick and Scarnecchia love this kid.  He was ineffective last season when pressed into starting duty and was just abused in the AFC Championship Game in Denver. As the saying goes, we’ll see how it plays out on the field.

Waddle has the opportunity to seize the swing tackle position. He too was hurt against the Cowboys and his shoulder injury sidelined him. But the Patriots gave him a two-year contract this offseason and he also has the capability to be an extra blocking tight end in short yardage.

On the Bubble: Tre’ Jackson, Josh Kline, Cameron Fleming, Ted Karras
Jackson was a rookie draft pick (4th Rd, 111th overall), a year ago and had nine starts while appearing in 13 games. Prior to coming out in the 2015 NFL Draft, he had knee issues and he missed time with those during the season as well as missing both playoff games. If he’s healthy he’ll compete for the right guard spot, where he saw all of his action a year ago. But he missed all of the spring, so his status will bear watching once training camp begins.

Kline is a guy who the Patriots traditionally love, an undersized but tough player. He too missed all of the spring. With the additions of Thuney and Cooper along the interior of the line, he may find himself on the outside looking in.

Fleming flopped as a swing tackle a year ago, like Cannon was ineffective when pressed into service. But the last offseason, the Patriots fiddled with the idea of moving him to guard. He was training to do just that, cutting down on his weight a bit and improving his quickness. We saw the video of his workouts last spring and it seemed he was destined to move inside.

But the team drafted Mason and Jackson last spring and Fleming went back outside. The results were not good. Perhaps with a full offseason with Scarnecchia, Fleming can get his game back together. The swing tackle position will again go thru Cannon, Waddle and Fleming.

Karras is a tough kid that has a lot of upper body strength, completing 32 reps on the bench press at his Pro Day this spring. The 6th round draft pick has an NFL pedigree and is a good pass protector but isn’t very athletic and may find himself a practice squad candidate unless he can shine in limited opportunities.

Outside Looking in…. Longshots: Chris Barker, Keavon Milton
Both of these players have been let go in the past and face long odds of making the roster out of training camp.

Barker was originally claimed off of waivers from the Miami Dolphins in the 2013 season and appeared in four games. During the 2014 season, he split time between the practice squad and the active roster and appeared in two games. Last season he was signed to the active roster for the Week 10 game against the Giants before being released and signed back to the practice squad.

Milton was a UDFA in 2013 and was signed by the New Orleans Saints. He was among the final cuts of the Saints and was signed by the Browns and appeared in eight games with no starts that season. He then was released by the Browns at the end of training camp in 2014 and signed to Seattle’s practice squad. Released in September 2015 he was signed by the Patriots to their practice squad in November. The 6’4, 320-pound Milton was a blocking tight end at Louisiana-Monroe who made the transition to tackle

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcast on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

Don’t Go to Sleep This Spring on Patriots CB Darryl Roberts

Steve Balestrieri
May 10, 2016 at 8:53 am ET

Still an Unproven Quantity at CB, 2nd Year Player Has Plenty of Upside

The Patriots drafted Alabama cornerback Cyrus Jones with their first pick in the 2016 NFL Draft with the 60th overall pick. Jones is expected to immediately contend for slot corner duties immediately with a chance at moving outside later. Another player who can possibly vie for starting reps outside in 2016 is 2nd-year corner Darryl Roberts.

Roberts was drafted by the Patriots with a 7th round draft pick (247th overall), out of Marshall last season. An incredibly gifted athlete, he had a big performance at Marshall’s Pro Day running a 4.38-second 40-yard dash with a 6.66-second time in the 3-Cone Drill, a 4.06-second short shuttle, a 39-inch vertical leap, and an 11’1”-inch broad jump. He also benched 225 pounds 23 times.

He’s the tallest of the Patriots corners currently on the roster, just topping out at 6’0 and 190 pounds. Roberts is a tough, physical corner with long arms that he uses aggressively in press coverage. He has outstanding change of direction skills and has the speed to mirror receivers downfield as well as recover when the ball is in the air.

With the huge turnover at the position last season, the competition was essentially wide open entering training camp. Roberts was tossed right into the mix, getting essentially first team reps against Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola early in training camp. The results were about what one would expect.

Coming from a small school, Roberts wasn’t prepared for the quickness off the line of the Patriots shifty receivers. He was playing too high in his backpedal and wasn’t able to get a good jam at the line. As a result, for the first couple of days, he was getting beat regularly.
Roberts-Edelman
Roberts-Amendola

But the light quickly came on and Roberts began to improve markedly as camp wound along.  His coverage got tighter, his physicality improved and he began making more and more plays as the days passed. Was he rising ala Malcolm Butler in 2014? No, not quite. But his level of play had increased to the point of being noticeably better.


Darryl Roberts came on strong during 2015’s training camp before landing on IR. (SBalestrieri/PatsFans.com image)

One day during the dog days of August, he broke up four passes in the training session, one of which was intercepted. He earned the start in the Patriots first preseason game of the year against the Green Bay Packers and it was in this game that his season came to a halt.

In trying to tackle the Packers Eddie Lacy, Roberts badly dislocated his wrist. The recovery time for that injury is about 8 weeks but the Patriots made the decision to place him on season-ending IR. He was fully healed by the time the season ended.

Now with a clean bill of health, Roberts should have no issues with once again competing for a spot on the roster and possibly for some starting reps. Unlike Jones who can play inside or out, Roberts is ideally a fit for the perimeter. There, his length, athleticism, and physicality can impact the play, giving the Patriots another option at covering opponents’ wide receivers.

He joins a crowded group of ten corners this spring including, Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan, Cyrus Jones, Justin Coleman, E.J. Biggers, Brock Vereen, Cre’Von LeBlanc, V’Angelo Bentley, Jonathan Jones.

But with Logan Ryan being an unrestricted free agent in 2017, the Patriots will be looking within to see if there is a player currently on the roster that can step up and play on the outside. Jones is one of those guys but for now, he’ll compete with Justin Coleman for reps in the slot. Roberts should vie with Biggers initially for reps backing up the starters outside in Butler and Ryan.

If last season is any indication, he may indeed by ready for a bigger slice of the pie. He also has special teams’ capability with his speed and athleticism, something that the Patriots always covet in their players.

While all eyes will be focused on Jones this summer and rightfully so, don’t be surprised if Roberts, the 7th round pick from last season starts to turn heads again once the players hit the field.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcast on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

New England Patriots News 5-8, AFC East Notes

Steve Balestrieri
May 8, 2016 at 5:00 am ET

Good morning and Happy Mother’s Day, here are Sunday’s Patriots news 5-8 notes and what’s happening around the AFC East.

Amendola Shows His Focus is on Winning:
For the second straight season, Danny Amendola has reworked his contract to remain a member of the Patriots. His latest restructure gives him a two-year deal worth $7.35 million dollars with another $750,000 available in incentives and bonuses.

Amendola could have dug in his heels and held out in hoping to either force the Patriots to either pay him his salary for this season, ($5 million base, $6.8 million cap hit) or forcing his release where he could get that much on the open market.

He decided that the chance to win another championship here was more important to him and his comments after signing his deal played that out.

Amendola has proven to be a very solid signing by the Patriots and his productivity over the last year and a half has been very good. He’s earned the trust of Tom Brady, has come up big in big situations and is a lock for this season.

Tackle is Still a Major Area for Concern:
Entering the NFL Draft one of the biggest areas to upgrade seemed to the offensive tackle position. We went on record as stating the Patriots should have drafted their future right tackle this season and got him ready to take some reps during 2016.

Both LT Nate Solder and RT Sebastian Vollmer were injured in 2015 and Vollmer, 32 has a history of back and knee issues that could easily rear their head again this season. Which is why it is puzzling at best why the Patriots didn’t address the position during the draft.

The swing tackle competition this season (as of today), remains between Marcus Cannon, LaAdrian Waddle, and Cameron Fleming. While the play along the entire offensive line should see a boost with the return of Dante Scarnecchia as the offensive line coach, it is still a big area of concern. As the NFL Game Rewind tape of the Denver playoff game can attest to.

Patriots Giving Back to the Community, a win-win situation:
The Patriots are very active in the community, and one of the hallmarks of every player’s contract is a stipulation that they’ll have to give back and make a certain amount of appearances in the community.

For the vast majority of the players, however, once they get out in the community, they not only do the mandated amount of appearances but much more. A good example of this was in Grafton on Thursday night. A basketball team of current Patriots players and alumni took on an All-Star team of Grafton police and locals with the money raised going to charity.

It was the 20th year of the friendly competition and the fans turned out in droves, as they do every year. Fan favorites were Voice of the Patriots Scott Zolak, Pats DT Joe Vellano, making his third appearance in the game and Safety Jordan Richards, both of whom had huge smiles on their faces all night long, including an autograph session at halftime. Zo interacted with the crowd during the game and continually got them fired up. Zolak does 10-12 charity games a year and is always a crowd favorite.

BB-elation
Patriots players and alumni get a youngster from the crowd fired up during a charity basketball game. (SBalestrieri/Grafton News photo)

Wearing a different hat on the night for the Grafton News and not reporting on your typical football fare, I asked Richards about doing these games with the team already back to work during OTAs.

He beamed another huge smile, “It is great getting back to work with the guys, but this is a welcome distraction,” he said. “We all love getting back out in the community and interacting with all the fans.”

BTW the Patriots team consisting of Vellano, Richards, Brandon King, Rufus Johnson, and Patrick Pass, Mark Levoir and Scott Zolak from the alumni came back from a halftime deficit to win big over the Grafton team that had some hometown ringers added this year. Here’s look toward Year 21.

Cyrus Jones Introduced to New England, Will Wear Number 24:
Top draft choice Cyrus Jones was introduced as is the tradition, to the media at Gillette Stadium this week and came across as an already polished and mature young man. He spoke about the influence his father had on him.

Growing up in Baltimore,  Cyrus Jones was a Ravens fan but learned a healthy respect for Tom Brady stating that “anytime we played the Patriots, I definitely was scared of Tom Brady.” He added, “He’s a winner. Everybody likes winning. I consider myself a winner, so I’m looking forward to working with him and trying to get to another Super Bowl and win it.”

Jones will wear #24 and spoke about the recent tradition of those wearing that number for the Patriots including Ty Law and Darrelle Revis. But do you know who else wore that number for the Pats? PatsFans.com own John Morgan wrote a great piece a couple of years ago when Revis came to town on the entire history of the #24 for the Patriots.

East Bound and Down…AFC East Notes:

Dolphins Ink Wake to Two-Year Contract Extension:
The Dolphins have inked DE Cameron Wake to a 2-year contract extension that should have the former CFL star in a Miami uniform for his entire career.

Wake’s new deal will pay him $10 million fully guaranteed over the next two years and will drop his cap hit in 2016 down from $9.8 million. At age 34, this may be his last contract. He tore his Achilles tendon last year and appears to be fully on schedule to return healthy this season.

Jets Introduce Hackenberg but Send a Message to Fitzpatrick:

Jets rookie QB Christian Hackenberg got his introduction to the NY media this week and said all the right things about wanting to learn the offense and building trust with his NY teammates but the big focus was on who wasn’t there.

Hackenberg, who wore number 14 at Penn State is wearing #5 for the Jets…for the time being as the team still hopes to work out a deal with incumbent starter Ryan Fitzpatrick this season. Fitzpatrick wore #14 last year but apparently the two sides are still far apart on contract negotiations.

But the Jets are also sending a message as well, With the media in the locker room interviewing Hackenberg, Fitzpatrick’s locker was noticeably cleaned out. His nameplate was removed and a “New York Jets” plate took its place.

Bills Sign LT Cordy Glenn to a Five-year Extension:
The Bills freed up $7.5 million dollars in cap space this year by signing LT Cordy Glenn to a five-year extension that will pay Tyrod Taylor’s blind side protector up to $65 million with $36 million fully guaranteed.

Glenn’s cap hit will drop from $13.7 million in 2016 to just over $6 million which gives the Bills now just over $14 million in salary cap room. Now they have the cash to pay their draft picks and UDFAs as well as work a deal out with Taylor.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcast on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

Possible Patriots Draft Target, DL Hassan Ridgeway

Steve Balestrieri
March 26, 2016 at 9:40 am ET

 

Texas Two-Step? Could the Patriots re-unite Ridgeway with Malcom Brown?

As the 2016 NFL Draft draws closer we’ll profile some of the players that may be on the Patriots radar that we feel would be a great fit.

The Patriots still have a need at defensive tackle following the loss of Akiem Hicks during free agency. The team signed journeyman Frank Kearse but could use another big body inside who can help stuff the run and push the pocket from the interior.

The team used a nice rotation last year of rookie Malcom Brown, Alan Branch, Hicks and Dominique Easley during 2015. With Easley’s injury concerns still an issue, more depth is needed. Branch and Brown may prove to be the top two players but keeping fresh legs and bodies is imperative for the big men inside.

The Patriots kicked the tires on free agent Nick Fairley of the Lions and Rams but were thought to be out of the loop now for a deal. While there are still other free agents still available and still a possibility, the draft is chock full of prospects right thru the middle rounds of players who can step up and play immediately.

Hassan Ridgeway from Texas is a player who immediately comes to mind and could become a Patriots draft target. One of the more underrated defensive tackle prospects, he was brought to the Longhorns as a 250-pound edge rusher. He put on 50 pounds and is now an interior presence. Powerfully built at 6’3, 307 pounds, he’s an interior disruptor who can stuff plays in the backfield and push the pocket from the inside.

When teamed with the Pats Brown during his sophomore season, he was immense, stuffing 11 plays for a loss. In his final season at Texas, he was again a factor notching 36 tackles, 3.5 sacks and 6.5 tackles for a loss.

Ridgeway played mostly five-technique in Charlie Strong’s 3-4 defense but switched to a one-technique when the Longhorns went to a four-man front. He decided to forego his senior season and enter the NFL Draft a year early. So for the second season in a row, Texas loses its top defensive lineman to the NFL Draft. The last one ended up in New England. Where will Ridgeway end up?

Ridgeway turned heads at his Pro Day by running the 20-yard short-shuttle in 4.69 seconds and the 3-Cone Drill in 7.33 which for a big man of his size is pretty impressive. At the NFL Combine he ran a 5.02 in the 40-yard dash with a 1.71 time in the 10-yard split. That is outstanding short area burst and quickness something NFL Network’s Mike Mayock was pointing out when evaluating big men.

Pros:

– Very strong and powerful and extremely difficult to move at the point of attack

– Quick first step and will blow thru gaps to make the play

– Good vision, can sniff out plays at the snap and adjust

– Violent hitter, will punish ball carriers

Cons

– Conditioning was an issue at Texas

– Had a lot of nagging injuries that could be an issue

– Not yet the sum of his parts, needs to step up his production

What his Role Will Be:
His role is part of the rotation inside for the Patriots defensive line. He’d project initially as an earlier down run stuffing player, but he’s a guy who can shed blockers quickly and get after the quarterback.

Will his Role Change from Year 1-2?
Yes, with some better conditioning and experience in the pro game, he’ll be looked at in Year 2 to produce more in the pass rush department

How Many Downs Can He Play?
Three

What Current Player on the Roster Will He Replace?
He’ll push Kearse, Ishmaa’ily Kitchen and Chris Jones for a roster spot

What is his ST Value?
None

Conclusion:
Ridgeway would fit in very well in the New England system. He’s a powerfully built young man who won’t be easy to move at the point of attack. He has a good football I.Q. and can diagnose plays at the snap, anticipate the design of the play and disrupt.

He’s mature and that will play out well with Bill Belichick and the coaching staff. With the Patriots rotating interior men in and out, he’ll benefit playing with veteran Alan Branch and his former Texas teammate Brown.

He’s versatile (another Belichick checkmark), and having played both inside and outside on the defensive line will serve him well. As a former edge rusher, he shows good hand work which can still be improved. His pass rushing skills are good, not top notch but can definitely improve with time.

There are some conditioning and nagging injury issues but he’d be a very good addition to an already stout defense in 2016.

He projects in the Patriots system to be a Potential Starter on Day 1. He should fit in very well into the NE defense as a member of the defensive line rotation.

Ridgeway was initially thought to be available around the 4th round of the draft. His impressive Pro Day with Texas may have him moving up draft boards.

Ridgeway’s highlight film can be found here, courtesy of Harris Highlights:

<<

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcast on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

Patriots Free Agent Profile – Dekoda Watson

Steve Balestrieri
February 6, 2016 at 8:45 am ET

The Patriots have a couple of decisions to make in regard to free agents this off-season, but they are mainly to do with their role players and not with the starters like last year or the upcoming 2017 season.

One of their free agent signings this offseason and a player who spent three different stints with the team in 2015 was linebacker Dekoda Watson.

Watson spent time with the Bucs, Jaguars and Cowboys before being signed by the Patriots in May of 2015 bringing the roster to the 90-man limit at that time. He was originally drafted by the Bucs in the 7th round of the 2010 NFL Draft with the 217th pick from Florida State.

He was released at the end of training camp, signed in mid-September, released again a few weeks later and was re-signed in December and played well down the stretch for the Patriots. He kept in shape and was ready once he got the call to come back.

His best season came in 2013 with Tampa Bay where he produced 42 tackles, two sacks, one interception, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery, one pass defensed, three tackles for loss and one blocked kick. He’s a fast, disruptive linebacker who can be a liability in coverage against running backs.

He ended up with New England after undergoing double groin surgery which slowed his 2014 progress and eventually was the call for his release from Jacksonville and Dallas. “I came off the surgery and they were expecting something more once I came back and it kind of lingered a little bit,” Watson told the media at the time. “Once I was at my peak, I was able to play against Dallas and I played with high energy, I felt good about it and I came with a lot of confidence.”

The 6’2, 240-pound linebacker is slightly undersized but runs with good speed, logging a 4.55 in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine. And despite his stature, he’s a physical downhill player, a good tackler and plays off blocks pretty well.

He can blitz off the edge and has a good initial burst. Watson also has good play recognition and has a quick reaction time. During the AFC Divisional Round against Kansas City, when Chandler Jones left with an injury, Watson filled in at defensive end. “Dekoda gave us some good rushes there on the edge,” Bill Belichick said after the game.

Given his versatility, besides filling in for Jones at defensive end, he can play either the SAM or WILL linebacker positions and is a core special teamer. He sprung Danny Amendola for a big punt return against the Chiefs.

“It’s great to be back,” Watson said to Phil Perry of CSNNE. “It’s great to be back in this environment. It’s not necessarily the football part of it, but just the camaraderie with the players, just seeing old friends and things like that. Being able to just sit in a meeting room is a blessing.”

“People don’t understand that. Just to be able to do things like that, it’s the small things. To come back, they show you love, everybody’s excited to see you and things like that. There’s just some things that you’ll never be able to take away when it comes to football. It’s just good. It’s a great blessing. A great opportunity.”

Why Watson Will Return: Watson is the kind of versatile depth player that Bill Belichick loves to fill the bottom of the roster with. He can play WILL/SAM linebacker positions and as he showed in the playoffs, can even jump in at defensive end.

He’s always been known as a good special team player and that aspect of his game served him and the team well against the Chiefs. The Patriots need depth at linebacker after starters Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower especially with the uncertain return of Jerod Mayo given his three successive years of major injury and his $11 million-dollar cap hit in 2016.If he is resigned, he’ll join Jonathan Freeny, Jon Bostic and Darius Fleming as the team’s depth players.

Watson won’t break the bank and he can be signed pretty inexpensively. He has got good speed and is still relatively young, turning just 28 on March 3.

Why Watson Won’t Return: The Patriots may look to get younger and get another bigger run stuffer in the draft already having Fleming and Freeny on the squad. When Hightower went down with an injury, Mayo filled in but has been slowed by injuries and the run defense suffered. The team lacked that big, physical presence inside.

Bottom Line:  The money will drive the train here in relation to his coming back, if he wants too much money, which isn’t likely, the Patriots would most likely pass.

If they can come to a modest salary cap hit there is no reason to believe that the Patriots wouldn’t entertain at least the possibility of Watson trying to earn a roster spot in training camp. Speaking of which, the biggest impression we remember of Watson during last year’s camp was of him wearing a hoodie under his uniform on those sweltering late July and early August days.

Watson is a versatile and speedy linebacker who can be a core special teamer. He won’t be a star, but the back end of the Patriots roster is always chock full of guys like him that have a role and do it well. Jonathan Casillas from the 2014 Super Bowl winning team comes immediately to mind. Watson fits that role to a tee.

For that reason and the fact that he already is very familiar with the system, I’d say there is a 70 percent chance that the Patriots resign him and bring him back in 2016.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcast on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

Patriots Free Agent Profile – Tarell Brown

Steve Balestrieri
February 5, 2016 at 6:00 am ET

The Patriots have a couple of decisions to make in regard to free agents this offseason, but they are mainly to do with their role players and not with the starters like last year or the upcoming 2017 season.

One of their free agent signings was CB Tarell Brown who came on-board on July 23, just prior to training camp which started on July 30. Brown signed a 1-year deal worth $2 million dollars. Brown had spent seven seasons with the 49ers and Raiders after being drafted in the 5th round of the 2007 NFL Draft.

Brown was known as a smart, solid, fundamentally sound player. A good starter as a number 2 cornerback. Of course when the Patriots signed him, I immediately (and wrongly) pegged him as a depth player only with little chance of becoming a starter. He did arrive with a foot injury issue, which is why the Patriots had him in for visits twice before signing him in July.

But what drew Brown to New England wasn’t just that the team had a huge turnover at the corner position. But that the players are expected to be prepared every day and held to a higher standard than other teams do.

“That’s one of the reasons why I came here is just because these guys are held to a higher standard,” Brown said during training camp. “Day in and day out, you compete and that’s what we’re here to do and there’s nothing less than winning is accepted.”

What drew the Patriots and Bill Belichick to Brown was his studious, analytical side of playing the position. One of the things that the Patriots do and do a lot of on defense is what is commonly referred to as “mixing things up.” That just doesn’t mean switching from man-to-man to zone, which every team does. But depending upon the call by the defense, the situation and the opposition, a player’s responsibility will change. Sometimes players will rotate sides and a hallmark of the Belichick way is knowing what all the other parts are responsible doing.

Brown had a week to try to learn the defense and he reportedly spent a lot of time with Devin McCourty learning the calls, the responsibilities and the different coverages.

“It’s a craft,” Brown said of  playing corner. “You gotta be able to study and be a student of the game. It’s not just about athletic ability anymore. You can get away with that in college, but once you get to the NFL, being able to study, being able to enjoy and understand your craft and when to use things, that’s what’s important.”

When camp opened, Brown’s foot was still an issue, but he caught on very quickly and was turning heads early in the sessions. On August 2, he was arguably the best player on the field, breaking up passes to Edelman in the end zone, a deep pass to Tyms where he was beaten initially but reacted well to the ball being in the air and knocked it away at the last moment, and another deep pass to Brandon Gibson.

Once the season started he was the #2 corner opposite Malcolm Butler and played well. When the team went to the nickel look with three corners, he’d move inside and Logan Ryan would come in and take his place outside. But his foot issues were never fully behind him and he was only able to play in three games with two starts before being placed on IR on October 17.

The 5’11, 190-pound Brown just turned 31 in January and would be very interested in coming back for a second stint with the team.

Why Brown Will Return: Brown, provided he’s healthy gives the Patriots a savvy, smart veteran who will be able to compete for the #2 corner position and be versatile enough to slide inside to play the slot.

His analytical approach and work ethic definitely resonates with Belichick and the Patriots. He’d be a very good sounding board for the younger players. Plus, he’s a proven veteran who can step in and play whenever and wherever he’s needed.

Another thing in his favor was, after he was placed on IR, he stayed in Foxboro and did his rehab there. He helped out in any way he could the corners on the roster in the film room and with their technique. Those are the kind of things that endear a player to the coaching staff. His salary won’t break the bank and he’d be very affordable.

Why Brown Won’t Return: The Patriots may decide that his foot injury will be one of those chronic type injuries that will haunt him for the rest of his career and therefore become a guy that they feel they can’t rely upon.

Or they could decide just to go younger and bring in another young guy. Butler and Ryan are still young and will be starting their third and fourth years respectively. Coleman is only going to be 23 when the OTAs begin, and Darryl Roberts who got the start in the first preseason game, is just 25 and entering his second season.

But the main issue with Brown will be his health, specifically his foot.

Bottom Line:  Brown was a pleasant surprise for the Patriots last summer. He signed a week before camp and had a solid summer that translated into an opening night start against the Steelers. He played well when he was on the field.  While his injury issue is the driving force here, he’d compete once again for starting reps.

Considering he won’t command a ton of money against the salary cap, I think there’s a 70 percent chance of the Patriots bringing him back for another year. They could basically set it up much like last year’s contract where there’d be a very small signing or roster bonus,  or possibly just a straight salary deal. That way if they decide they don’t want to keep him at the end of training camp, there would be no issue with dead money against the cap.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcast on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

Patriots Free Agent Profile – Brandon Gibson

Steve Balestrieri
February 3, 2016 at 12:00 pm ET

The Patriots suffered a slew of injuries in 2015, and ended up with 21 players on injured reserve. The wide receiver position was especially hard hit both early in the preseason and then during the regular season.

During the 2015 offseason the Patriots signed former Dolphin WR Brandon Gibson and the 28-year old 6’0 WR quickly caught on and was pushing hard for a roster spot before tearing his ACL in a preseason game with the Saints and being placed on IR.

Josh Boyce and Brian Tyms also were lost in preseason, Julian Edelman tweaked an ankle in early August and missed the entire preseason. Then Aaron Dobson lost another season to injury, Edelman broke his foot and missed the last two months of the regular season. Danny Amendola dealt with knee issues as did Rob Gronkowski and Scott Chandler. It wasn’t an easy season for the Patriots receiving core.

Gibson had two decent seasons as a Miami backup with 30 catches for 326 yards and three touchdowns in 2013, followed by 29 catches for 295 yards for a touchdown in 2014. He had a couple of solid seasons in St. Louis as well, catching 53 passes in 2010 and 51 for 691 yards and five touchdowns in 2012. From the early days of training camp, he put his nose to the grindstone and worked hard and strived to find that coveted comfort level with Brady.

It was in the second week of camp where due to injuries, he was getting a lot of work with Brady. On August 6, he was easily the best player on the field for the offense, catching seven catches from Brady including a beauty over the top of Malcolm Butler.

Brandon Gibson

From there on he seemed to be making plays every day on the hot, training camp practice fields. In the first preseason game he was targeted just four times but caught all four for 29 yards. In the second preseason game against New Orleans he was targeted nine times and caught eight for 68 yards.  Then came the injury.

“Just have to pray for the best, that’s all you can do,” Gibson said after the game that night.

Now the Patriots have decisions to make on not only Gibson but on Boyce and Dobson as well. They’re entering their fourth seasons and have yet to make an impact on the field as they were envisioned when they were drafted due to injuries. Tyms is another matter, as he seemed destined for a role as well as Gibson when he went down.

Why Gibson Will Return: Gibson has seen some success in the league with Miami and St. Louis and has shown he can put the work in and gain Brady’s trust. He won’t ever be a prolific receiver but he was and can be again a solid role player who can come in and contribute and can spot start when called upon.

He’ll only be 29 during training camp on August 13 and has a history with Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels. He shouldn’t break the bank and at a minimum will provide solid competition for one of the backup wide receiver slots.

He’s the kind the veteran that the team needs as a backup that can step in and contribute whenever his number is called.

Why Gibson Won’t Return: The Patriots will undoubtedly look to upgrade their arsenal for Tom Brady in the 2016 and their plans may not involve Gibson. Especially if his knee isn’t all the way back yet once training camp starts.

There should be plenty of competition, Tyms, Boyce, Dobson as well as Chris Harper and DeAndre Carter will all be vying for spots on the roster. That is before they add any names via free agency and the 2016 NFL Draft.

In a numbers game, Gibson may find himself the odd man out.

Bottom Line: Gibson, barring any setback from his ACL tear should be ready to contribute in 2016. It makes sense to bring back the veteran who won’t cost much and is a proven NFL wide receiver.

For that reason, if he’s healthy this season there is a 70 percent chance that the team brings him back to the fold for this upcoming season. Then it will be up to him to once again show that he’s worthy of a roster spot.

Something tells me that he will be around in the beginning of September.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcast on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

Still Time for Brandon LaFell to Turn Around 2015 Season

Steve Balestrieri
January 9, 2016 at 10:19 am ET

The Patriots will be watching the AFC playoff games with interest on Saturday as they’ll be facing one of three teams that plays today. Either the winner of the Kansas City – Houston game or the Cincinnati Bengals will be making their way to Foxboro next Saturday afternoon.

Only the Pittsburgh Steelers won’t play here unless they beat the Bengals and then travel to Denver next week and beat them in the divisional round. Then the Steelers would come to Gillette for the AFC Championship Game as long as the Patriots win next week.

The Patriots took the bye week to do some self-scouting and get some much needed rest for their injured players. They conducted only two walk-thru practices this week and Bill Belichick cancelled Friday’s practice and took the team bowling.

While much of Patriots Nation is fixated on the return of Julian Edelman and rightfully so as he gets the short passing game going, the Patriots offense is really a collaborative effort where all the pieces are needed to keep the machine running at optimum performance.

And a big part of the Super Bowl winning offense of 2014 was Brandon LaFell. The 2nd year Patriot wide receiver has struggled all season after being a reliable and productive target for the Pats last year.

After a very slow start in the spring and summer where he struggled to learn the playbook, LaFell took off. He was perhaps the only bright spot on a dismal night in Kansas City as he finally started to click in the offense. Between the regular season and playoffs of 2014, LaFell caught 87 passes for 1072 yards and nine touchdowns. He scored the first touchdown of Super Bowl XLIX on a pass from Tom Brady.

Then offseason surgery on his foot caused him to miss all of the spring workouts and all of training camp and the preseason. He began the year on PUP and made his first appearance Week 7 against the New York Jets where he had an extremely rough outing with six drops.

He seemingly never got untracked, save for one big game against the Redskins (5 catches, 102 yards), but he ceased being a target for Brady in the red zone as his drops became more of a trend than a fluke and his production, especially late in the season plummeted. He finished the year with just 37 catches for 515 yards and most importantly zero touchdowns.

Bill Belichick spoke this week about the difficulties that LaFell has faced this season trying to play from behind and how it isn’t easy stepping in  after missing all of the workouts and team building thru the spring and summer.

“Brandon’s really pushed through,” Belichick said. “Being on PUP he had a little bit of extra time in terms of starting right at the beginning of the season. But any time you come into the middle of the year without the full training cycle, the offseason, training camp, all that, you’re always playing catch-up. You might marginally close the gap, but it’s never the same as having that whole period there.

“Mentally and schematically there, I think that’s all caught up. Physically, it’s improving. It’s certainly good enough to be competitive,” he added. Is it as good as it would be with all the other training and prior training in place? No, I don’t think so. Look, if that was the case, I mean, why do we go to training camp? Why do we have an offseason program? So that’s the benefit of all those guys being able to do that.”

So while a healthy Edelman will most certainly help the Patriots offense get their short passing game re-ignited, others such as Danny Amendola who’s been gutting thru a nagging knee issue and LaFell will have to step up as well.

With a hopefully close to normal Edelman, LaFell can go back to what made him such a valuable piece in 2014, a big, physical chains mover as really the third target in the progression behind Edelman and Rob Gronkowski.

LaFell was particularly effective at running the short-to-intermediate sidelines back shoulder routes and the short slants with the aforementioned receivers clearing out some space. That’s what made him so effective in the red-zone last season.

He still has the time to turn things around and regain some of that much needed trust from #12 to get the ball in the key spots. With a tough regular season in the books a nice turnaround in the playoffs can erase a lot of bad memories for 2015.

The receiving core of Edelman, Amendola, Gronkowski, LaFell, Keshawn Martin with James White and Steven Jackson out of the backfield is plenty good enough, if healthy, to get the Patriots to Santa Clara. Now is the time to get it back in gear.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcast on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

Patriots 2015 End of Regular Season Report Card – Offense

Steve Balestrieri
January 6, 2016 at 6:00 am ET

New England Patriots 2015 Season Positional Wrap-up – Offense

With the Patriots regular season in the books for 2015, it is a great time to take a look at the positions and give them a grade for the season before the playoffs begin.

We’ll start with the offense, then the defense and finally special teams and coaching. With a 12-4 season, there will obviously be plenty of positives, as there should be. But there was lots of room for improvement in lots of areas as well.

But the bottom line is the Patriots won their 13th division title in 15 years. This was supposed to be the year that they were pushed by the Bills and Dolphins and that never materialized. The Jets made great improvements this season but never seriously threatened the Patriots for the division crown.

So here are my final grades by position for the offense, we’ll post up the defense tomorrow and feel free to chime in with your own thoughts. First up the QBs:

Chris Harper With an Opportunity to Shine in Edelman’s Absence

Steve Balestrieri
November 18, 2015 at 12:00 pm ET

The Patriots activated Chris Harper off of the practice squad on Tuesday, and this is a prime chance for the UDFA rookie wide receiver to carve out a role for himself. Not only while Julian Edelman is on the shelf until the playoffs start but with an eye towards the future as well.

In a corresponding move the team cut offensive lineman Chris Barker who was activated just a few days ago. Barker will no doubt be signed back to the PS if he clears waivers today and outwardly that is a good sign that either Sebastian Vollmer or Marcus Cannon…perhaps both, will be available this week.

Harper was one of the UDFAs that seems to turn heads during training camp for the Patriots every year. He was a sought after rookie free agent but opted to sign with the Patriots as he thought he’d have a good chance to showcase his talents. He made the decision to come out of college a year early, but was confident enough in his ability that he’d stick at the next level.

The 5’11, 185 quick WR from Cal played in 35 college games with 23 starts and finished seventh all-time in school history with 163 receptions for 2,030 yards receiving. In addition, he caught 13 touchdown catches which ranks 10th in school history. Harper also caught a pass in 29 straight games.

In early August during the dog days of training camp, the WR position was beset by injuries. Julian Edelman, Brandon LaFell, Aaron Dobson and Brian Tyms were all sidelined. So Harper got a chance to show what he can do and although he had his rookie mistakes, overall he impressed with his athleticism and quickness to learn the offense.

Quicker than fast, Harper needed to add a bit of muscle to his frame and refine his routes but showed a nice ability to cut and get open and was one of the key players to watch during this time. During training camp he displayed nice hands and made catches away from his body.

Harper was the “X”-receiver at Cal and was the Bears outside option in the passing game. With Edelman on the shelf, the Patriots will no doubt utilize Danny Amendola where his strengths lie which is inside in the slot. The outside wide receiver positions at the “X” and “Z” will be held by LaFell on one side and either Harper, Dobson or Keshawn Martin on the other.

Martin came over from Houston and was in a similar offense with the Texans. He got some game action in but recently has had a hamstring issue that has kept him on the shelf. Martin came from Houston with the rep as mainly a KR. Dobson has the size and straight line speed advantage over Harper but the rookie and Martin both have the capability to help out somewhere Dobson does not. And that would be special teams in the kick return game.

During those practices in August, Harper got some reps in at both kick and punt returning, something he was reasonably adept at in college.

“I think it’s really important to be on special teams here because, you know, even if you don’t make it on the team as a receiver, you can make it on special teams,” Harper said to the media back in camp. “And then down the road you can work your way into it depending on the circumstances that happen.” And that is exactly what has happened.

With Amendola getting a heavier workload at wide receiver, the Patriots may opt to lighten the amount of work for him elsewhere. Harper can fill in as a returner as well as a wide receiver on the outside.

During the pre-season game against the Saints, Harper caught five passes for 69 yards and a touchdown. He showed good awareness when the play broke down and found an open spot in coverage in the end zone where Jimmy Garoppolo hit him for a touchdown. Just as importantly, he returned two punts for 55 yards in the contest.

So while the Patriots try to cope with the loss of Edelman with added onus on Amendola, Gronk and LaFell, there will be opportunities to others to flash and carve out a role, albeit a smaller one but an important role nonetheless.

Harper has good agility and maintains his speed out of his breaks. He showed a nice understanding of the routes the Pats love to run, the short-to-intermediate routes where a guy can develop chemistry with Brady. He looked good during the summer at running the quick outs, the back shoulder sideline catches and the skinny posts. He is also a very willing blocker, something the Patriots pride their WRs in.

He doesn’t have the straight-line speed to be a deep threat and won’t run away from defenders, but the Patriots offense is built for the above type throws and he could be a valuable addition there.

And Harper’s special teams contributions are an additional feather in his cap. The more you can do with the Patriots, the more valuable you are to the coaches. We are were rooting for the underdog during the summer, now it will be interesting to see how much he’s improved since then.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcast on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.